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[8] Christian Worldview in Applying Research Ethics in the Discipline of Psychology.

by Marjorie A. Woodside

Compatibility of Christianity and Psychological Research

Is Christianity compatible with psychological research? Is a Christian worldview compatible with psychological research ethics? In what ways, and to what extent, should a Christian worldview influence doctoral dissertation research? Answers to these questions and resolution of potential, associated conflicts, are of paramount importance to the doctoral learner approaching the dissertation phase of a psychology education program (Banaszewski, 2014). Both, Christianity, and psychology, are concerned with answering questions and discovering explanations about human behavior and function of the mind (Walling, 2011), in the interest of contributing to the benefit of individuals and society (Denton, 2014). A Christian worldview accepts God’s Word as the ultimate ethical authority (Evans, 1974), while professional psychological research ethics are under the purview of the American Psychological Association (APA), as well as institutions, the state, and other governmental agencies of man (Fisher, 2016). Even so, there is considerable overlap of purpose and principle (Hathaway, 2001). Research topics for psychological dissertation research are not limited by a Christian worldview, provided the studies are designed to comprehend humanity from a biblical foundational perspective (Eames, 2011), and are conducted in compliance with the mandates of governing authorities (Tackett, 2006).

This paper will more fully examine some of the issues associated with psychological research (in general), psychological research ethics, and the conduct of doctoral dissertation research, as related to compatibility with a Christian worldview. Ultimately, there is no incongruity between psychological research and Christianity (Eames, 2011; Walling, 2011), as psychological research is a means of knowing, serving, and loving God and others (Ripley & Dwiwardani, 2014). Further, a Christian worldview and psychological research ethics, while emanating from distinctly different authorities, are not wholly incompatible (Hathaway, 2001). Finally, a Christian worldview should permeate dissertation research, as it does, every other aspect of the Christian’s life (Tackett, 2006) – with any question aimed at discerning God’s created order, approachable, (Eames, 2011; Slick, 2008), within the parameters of God’s determination of right and wrong conduct (AllAboutWorldview, 2016).

Christianity and Psychological Research

Christianity acknowledges that the universe, and everything in it, was created by and for God, and operates according to his purposeful, predictable design and order (Slick, 2008). All things, including all truth and knowledge, are God’s (Coletto, 2012; Eames, 2011). However, He has placed all of creation under the dominion and care of man, imposing a responsibility for man to understand that creation, as fully as possible, to enable appropriate service (Slick, 2008). A pathway to that understanding is systematic examination of creation’s entirety (Wilkinson, 2017), in light of God’s Word and wisdom (Evans, 2012). The scientific method provides the tools, by which, those who are called to conduct scientific research, are to carry out that inquiry (Walling, 2011). This eliminates the idea that Christianity and science are inherently incompatible or separate (Coletto, 2012). Science, its conduct, and its findings, are gifts from God (Wilkinson, 2017).

Psychological research applies the scientific method, to the study of behavior and the structure and function of the human mind, as a means of contributing positively to the well-being of individuals, organizations, and society (Fernald, 2008). The process answers questions regarding definition and discernment of normal and abnormal functioning, of complex emotions and reasoning, allowing effective responses (Denton, 2014) – an undertaking equivalent, in the Christian worldview, to serving God and loving others (Ripley & Dwiwardani, 2014). Additionally, Christianity, asserting that man is created in the image of God (Slick, 2008), pursues this knowledge, by the same means (and others), as a course of knowing God more fully (Ripley & Dwiwardani, 2014).

Pragmatically, given the significant commonality of purpose and processes, of secular and Christian approaches to psychological research, the two may not be readily distinguishable (Evans, 2012). What makes psychological research distinctly Christian, is the Christian foundational principles, upon which it is built, and through which, its findings are interpreted and applied (Eames, 2011). In other words, the disparity lies in the underlying commitments and presuppositions of the researcher, which are to be carefully spelled out in the research design process (Giorgi, 2012; Walling, 2011). As previously noted, Christianity and psychological research are not inherently, incompatible (Coletto, 2012), although their epistemological and ontological assumptions differ significantly.

Conducting and publishing sound, psychological research allows Christians participation in the greater conversation regarding what is good and healthy for humans and society (Ripley & Dwiwardani, 2014), as findings will apply to Christians and non-Christians, alike. Additionally, it affords the opportunity to validate the power and credibility of Christian ideas and belief, even if not explicitly stated (Evans, 2012). This is completely consistent with the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) and tenets of a Christian worldview (Slick, 2008)

Christian Worldview and Research Ethics

Ethics involves determination of what is right and what is wrong (AllAboutWorldview, 2016). A Christian worldview ascribes ultimate decisional authority to God in such matters (Slick, 2008), while purely scientific ethics are derived by, and under the authority of, man (e.g. the APA, governmental agencies) (Fisher, 2016; Koocher & Campbell, 2016). Christian ethics are based in the absolute and eternal morality established by the inerrant, inspired Word of God (Evans, 1974); while scientific ethics are fluid and based on the preferences of the prevailing culture and the wisdom of “fallen” and fallible man (AllAboutWorldview, 2016). Along these lines – moral authority, and the stability of moral requirements – Christian ethics and research ethics are incompatible (Evans, 1974; Schmidt, 2009).

Despite the differences, there is some overlap between Christian ethics and secular, scientific ethics; that secular codes of ethics are not based on the Bible, specifically, does not preclude morality (Hathaway, 2001). For example, the general principles of the APA code of ethics include beneficence/non-maleficence, fidelity and responsibility, integrity, justice, and respect for people’s rights and dignity (APA, 2010). Additionally, the federal government’s mandates regarding specific protections, to be afforded human research participants, explicate application of the same underlying principles (NIH, 2017). More specifically, Koocher and Campbell (2016) instructs that, the ethical conduct of psychological research requires truthfulness, reliability, and exactitude throughout the entire scientific undertaking, from the initial design phase, through reporting and publishing of findings. Researchers are required to seek maximization of the benefits, and minimization of any harm, which may result from their inquiries (APA, 2010). Obtaining informed consent and adherence to IRB approved procedures protects participants’ right to self-determination and prevents exploitation (Fisher, 2016). Each of these requirements, is fully consistent with a Christian worldview (Slick, 2008).

While no ethical standard, Christian or otherwise, serves its moral purpose or maintains its moral grounding, absent appropriate action [there is a distinct difference between knowing what is right, and doing what is right (Hathaway, 2001)], ideally, ethics is about more than just following the rules (Knapp, Handelsman, Gottlieb, & VandeCreek, 2013). It is about internalizing standards, such that they become an integral part of the researcher’s identity – who he or she is (AllAboutWorldview, 2016).

Christian Worldview and Planned Dissertation Research

A worldview is the lens through which, all aspects of the reality of the world, are viewed and understood (Slick, 2008). It is comprised of all held beliefs and morals, and guides every thought, feeling, and action – every response, to every aspect of the world (Tackett, 2006). A Christian worldview, is one, which considers all things, and responds to all things, in light of Biblical principles and wisdom (Tackett, 2006). According to this worldview, all truth comes from God, through Biblical and general revelation (Ripley & Dwiwardani, 2014). From this perspective, this doctoral learner expects a Christian worldview to influence planned dissertation research, in every conceivable way (Slick, 2008) – from topic selection, study design, and conduct, to interpretation and communication of findings (AllAboutWorldview, 2016).

Currently, planned dissertation research includes investigation of the lived experience of utilizing defensive pessimism as a cognitive strategy for coping with anxiety and preparing for all manner of important performance situations, using Giorgi’s (2012) descriptive phenomenological psychological method. This researcher feels called to develop knowledge regarding the constructive influence of negative thinking and affect (Norem, 2001; Sasaki, Sakamoto, Moriwaki, Inoue, & Ugajin, 2013), to develop valuable, coachable mental skills, for use in enhancing everyday performance.

The Biblical basis for selection of this topic is Proverbs 21:31 which states, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord” (NIV). To this researcher, the message is that everything conceivable (within the limits of Biblical morality), should be done in advance, in every situation, to properly prepare and influence outcomes, positively, with acceptance of the fact that God will determine outcomes. This thinking through and preparing for things that could go wrong, in advance, is an effective problem-solving strategy, which frees up limited physical and mental faculties during performance, so that they may be more adaptively focused (Norem, 2001). It is also a means of actively managing God’s instruction to, “be anxious for nothing” (Phil 4:6, NKJV). Furthermore, engaging defensive pessimism acknowledges personal responsibility (a belief that one’s actions bring results) (McGee & Johnson, 2015), while simultaneously acknowledging that, win, or lose, God is in control, “caus(ing) everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NLT).

Prior research and this doctoral learner’s personal experience, suggest that the concept of defensive pessimism is frequently misunderstood (if it has even been heard of), and its practice, often, not favorably received (Norem, 2001), particularly, in the faith community, where manifestations and admissions of anxiety are often interpreted as a lack of faith. It is hoped that this study will shed light on whether this negative perception and reception, is commonly experienced or idiosyncratic, leading to greater self-knowledge, as well as greater understanding (and possibly, an opportunity to foster greater acceptance) of those for whom the options of strategic optimism (belief that everything will work out fine if one just thinks positive) and self-handicapping (actively or passively contributing to routinely expected negative outcomes), are not reasonable, productive, or naturally-occurring options (Norem & Illingworth, 1993).

In accordance with a Christian worldview, this researcher will proceed ethically, in compliance with the demands of all properly assigned authorities, both Biblical and secular (AllAboutWorldview, 2016; APA, 2010; GCU, n.d.; GCU, 2017), throughout the dissertation process. These expectations have been clearly articulated, repeatedly, over the course of the doctoral learning experience and more than two decades of Bible study. Additionally, with prior participation in the conduct of multiple psychological research activities, over the past several years, this researcher has encountered no surprises related to scientific or Christian ethics, in preparation for dissertation activities. Even so, appropriate humility has this researcher expecting, and looking forward to, the unexpected, going forward (Ripley & Dwiwardani, 2014; Walling, 2011).


At this point in the psychology education process (the “moment” preceding transition to strictly dissertational activity), it is crucial that the doctoral learner understand and resolve, any existing conflicts between a Christian worldview and coming research activities, as well as their associated ethical concerns (Banaszewski, 2014). Examination of the underlying assumptions, purposes, and processes of both Christianity and psychology, reveals no inherent, irreconcilable incompatibility between the two, as related to conducting research (Eames, 2011; Walling, 2011). Each is concerned with achieving greater understanding of behavior and cognitive processes, so that individuals, organizations, and society may achieve greater levels of health and well-being (Denton, 2014; Fernald, 2008); and each finds the scientific method, an appropriate means of achieving its objectives (Walling, 2011). Comparison of Christian ethics and purely scientific psychological research ethics, exposes that there is irreconcilable incongruity between the two, as related to ultimate authority and the permanence of standards (Hathaway, 2001). However, there is general agreement as to the principles and protections which constitute the ethical conduct of psychological research (APA, 2010; Slick, 2008). Finally, as in every other area of the Christian’s life, the influence of a Christian worldview should pervade scientifically sound, doctoral dissertation research (Tackett, 2006) – from topic selection (Eames, 2011), to study design (Walling, 2011), to data collection and analysis (Ripley & Dwiwardani, 2014), and the truthful and accurate communication of results (Koocher & Campbell, 2016).


AllAboutWorldview.org (2016). Worldview:  Christian ethics. Retrieved from http://.allaboutworldview.org/christian-ethics.htm

American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (2002, Amended June 1, 2010). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/idex.aspx

Banaszewski, C. (2014). Effective research. In A. DiVincenzo (Ed.), Find your purpose:  The path to a successful doctoral experience (pp. 50-110). Available from  http://lc.gcumedia.com/res811/finding-your-purpose-the-path-to-a-successful-doctoral- experience/v1.1/

Coletto, R. (2012). Christian attitudes in scholarship:  The role of worldviews. Koers – Bulletin for Christian Scholarship, 77(1), Article #33, 10 pp. doi:  10.4102/koers.v77i1.33

Denton, R. (2014). Exploring Biblical reformational theology as a normative perspective for Christian psychology. In die Skriflig, 48(1), Article #1791, 11 pp. doi:  10.4102/ids.v48i1.1791

Eames, K. (2011). Expanding the hermeneutical circle:  A response to Alan C. Tjeltveit. Edification:  The Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology, 5(2), 103-106.

Evans, C. (2012). Doing psychology as a Christian:  A plea for wholeness. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 40(1), 32-36.

Evans, T. (1974, May). Homosexuality:  Christian ethics and psychological research. Paper presented at the convention of the Western Association of Christians for Psychological Studies, Santa Barbara, CA.

Fernald, L. (2008). Psychology:  Six perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

Fisher, C. (2016). Decoding the ethics code:  A practical guide for psychologists (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

GCU (n.d.). Ethical Positions Statement. Retrieved from https://www.gcu.edu/Documents/Ethical-Positions-Statement.pdf

GCU (2017). Grand Canyon University Policy Handbook, 2017-2018. Retrieved from https://www.gcu.edu/Documents/Policies/University%20Policy%20Handbook-081717.pdf

Giorgi, A. (2012). The descriptive phenomenological psychological method. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 43(1), 3-12. doi:10.1163/156916212X632934

Hathaway, W. (2001). Common sense professional ethics:  A Christian appraisal. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 29(3), 225-234.

Knapp, S., Handelsman, M., Gottlieb, M., & VandeCreek, L. (2013). The dark side of professional ethics. Professionally Psychology:  Research and Practice, 44(6), 371-377.

Koocher, G., & Campbell, L. (2016). Professional ethics in the United States. In J. C. Norcross, G. R. VandenBos, D. K. Feedheim, & L. F. Campbell (Eds.), APA handbook of clinical psychology:  Education and profession (pp. 301-337). doi:  10.1037/14774-020

McGee, H., & Johnson, D. (2015). Performance motivation as the behaviorist views it. Performance Improvement, 54(4), 15-21. doi:10.1002/pfi.21472

NIH Office of Extramural Research (2017). Protecting human research participants. Retrieved from https://phrp.nihtraining.com/users/login.php

Norem, J. (2001). The positive power of negative thinking:  Using defensive pessimism to manage anxiety and perform at your peak. Cambridge, MA:  Basic Books.

Norem, J., & Illingworth, K. (1993). Strategy-dependent effects of reflecting on self and tasks: Some implications of optimism and defensive pessimism. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 65(4), 822-835.

Ripley, J., & Dwiwardani, C. (2014). Integration of Christianity in research and statistics courses. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 42(1), 220-227.

Sasaki, J., Sakamoto, S., Moriwaki, A., Inoue, K., & Ugajin, K. (2013). The recognized benefits of negative thinking/affect in depression and anxiety:  Developing a scale. Japanese Psychological Research, 55(3), 203-215.  doi:10.1111/jpr.12008

Schmidt, U. (2009). Christian ethics and empirical research. Studia Theologica, 63(1), 67-88.

Slick, M. (2008). What are some Christian worldview essentials? Retrieved from https://carm.org/what-are-some-christian-worldview-essentials

Tackett, D. (2006). What’s a Christian Worldview? Retrieved from http:www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/christian-worldview/whats-a-christian-worldview/whats-a-worldview-anyway

Walling, S. (2011). Humility of science and faith:  Response to Alan C. Tjeltveit. Edification:  The Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology, 5(2), 112-114.

Wilkinson, D. (2017). When faith and science meet. Science & Christian Belief, 29(1), 42-44.

Ms. Woodside is a doctoral student in psychology at Grand Canyon University.  She holds a Master of Science in Behavioral Sciences from Cameron University in Lawton, OK

[7] The Integration of Christianity and Psychology: Some Basic Points

by Sarah Rainer, Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice

For Christian psychologists, our worldview must be determined by Scripture.

The successful integration of psychology and Christianity has long been a passion of mine. I will not speak to any one particular model, but provide key points to consider when integrating psychology and Christianity. These points, I believe, fall on the continuum between the Integrationist and Christian Psychology models.

1. Scripture and the Gospel are prominent.

The belief and use of Scripture and the Gospel are perhaps the most prevalent differences between the secular and Christian psychology worlds. For Christian psychologists, our worldview must be determined by Scripture. Not only should we see our clients as individuals in need of Jesus Christ, but our understanding of mental illness and disorder should also be based upon a Gospel-oriented worldview. As a result, our therapeutic practice will utilize Scripture to heal our clients and glorify Jesus.

2. Operating on a middle ground.

As a trained secular doctor, I appreciate the biopsychosocial model of human nature. Learning about the complexities of humanity provides me with a better framework for understanding and helping my clients. The intricacies of the human brain, the environmental influences on our personality, and the social and culture impact on our lives remind me that pathology cannot simply be reduced to issues of morality or sin.

As Christian psychologists, we should teach, provide, preach, and pray, just like Jesus.

On the other hand, as a Christian, I acknowledge that all humans are inherently separated from God. This separation causes disorder, sin, and disease of every kind. However, we serve a loving and just God that provides a way out of our depraved state through Jesus Christ. He longs for us to seek Him and His promise of eternity.

Due to the love of this God, I also cannot reduce all pathology to a naturalistic model of humanity. I propose that Christian mental health professionals operate on a middle ground, the bio/psycho/social/spiritual model, which considers both our dignity and depravity as humans.

3. Secular techniques can be helpful.

The use of some secular therapy interventions is not inherently wrong; the overreliance and/or independent use of these techniques is. Research and personal testimonies reveal that secular interventions are successful in the abatement of symptoms. However, the independent use of these secular techniques falls short because they simply produce a “symptom free” individual.

The end result does not provide dependence on the Lord, salvation, or sanctification. The result is nothing more than freedom from current symptoms, yet there is continued bondage to sin. The underlying cause of pathology (separation from God) has not been addressed. Therefore, we cannot eliminate the Gospel from therapy. We also cannot discard all secular techniques.

The elimination of research-based interventions from therapeutic practice would be a disservice to our clients. Not providing clients with skills that may help alleviate their psychological distress is also not good stewardship of our knowledge.

Helping a child with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder organize their school supplies, explaining and modeling the appropriate use of time-out to parents, challenging negative thoughts, and teaching diaphragmatic breathing, are some examples of secular techniques that do not challenge Scripture-based psychology. As Christian psychologists, we should teach, provide, preach, and pray, just like Jesus.

4. Research can be appreciated.

Secular research has a lot to offer in understanding mental illness. Christian psychologists should cautiously embrace this research. Comprehending the biological, social, and psychological underpinnings of mental illness can create in us great empathy for our clients.

The more knowledge we obtain the more we can adequately help others. Contrastingly, we must also recognize that not all secular research is congruent with Christianity. When research and Christianity contradict each other, we follow the latter.

5. Seek to make a difference outside the therapeutic relationship.

Most psychologists and therapists will have ample opportunities to make differences, exalt Jesus, and create changes within the context of their therapeutic relationships. Although these are wonderful, our influence should not stop there.

Christian psychologists should seek opportunities to change our communities, schools, coworkers, institutions, research, and the whole psychology world. Our influence should move beyond the walls of a therapy room to infiltrate different levels within our field. Jesus went to the world, and so should we.

Dr. Sarah Rainer has a doctorate in clinical psychology and practices in North Carolina.  This article was adapted from a Guest Post in Christianity Today on September 25, 2015.

[6] The Social Psychology of Post-Adolescent Apostasy

by David Claerbaut, Research Methodologist, Grand Canyon University

A common definition of apostasy is an abandonment or even a renunciation of one’s faith. There is a great deal of that among post-adolescents (or young adults) who come from Christian families. I am referring to young people who are termed “covenant children.” I am talking about young people who have been reared in professing Christian families and have either abandoned the practice of their faith (no church, no fellowship, no spiritual practices), or simply rejected the faith outright.

I know of no solid studies on this, so this analytic essay will be left to offer some hypotheses. This is a social psychological analysis because the essence of social psychology is the study of the impact of the group (any group, from a family to a nation) on the behavior of the individual. In this analysis, the influence of a “group” that brings about, or at least encourages, apostasy will be evident throughout.


Although I do not have any statistics on this, in my observation this issue of post-adolescent, young adult abandonment of the faith is a sizable one. Moreover, I am quite confident that many evangelicals would rather not know the actual tally, even if God himself were to make it available, so the matter is not much discussed. In short, it is all but ignored at the public level.

I see two reasons for this evangelical unwillingness to engage this issue. First, there is denial, the disinclination to accept the all-too-obvious reality of this apostasy among Christian youth. It is very, very difficult for Christian parents to confront the reality that their children do not (or no longer) believe. It is not uncommon to hear a Christian parent express concern that “George doesn’t go to church at all anymore,” but at the same time choose to believe that somewhere deep in George’s soul lives a vital Christian faith. This statement is clearly one of denial, because the problem is blatant–visible. The evidence lies before them but is wished away.

How common is this apostasy? Short of quantitative data, let me offer an anecdotal perspective. I can count five Christian families from my immediate circle of friends and relatives who have children who have left the faith. In some cases there is more than one such child in a single family. Two of my friends have been ordained to the ministry. In one case, I do not know that any of his four children are in the faith. In another case, at least two (possible three) are no longer practicing their faith.

The second reason Christians avoid this issue is due to a feeling of powerlessness, the sense there is really nothing they can do to reverse the direction of these exiting youth. That helplessness becomes a form of paralysis, and by consequence, removes any chance of spiritual revival.

It is difficult to reverse the process once apostasy is set in motion, simply because it is a process, one that is largely invisible in its early stages. I do not think young people wake up in their college dorm one morning and say to themselves, “You know, I think I will recant my faith today.” It is an evolutionary process, and like so many psychospiritual processes, those on the outside do not become aware of what is happening until it has been going on for a long time. Those on the outside enter the game in the 7th inning with the score mounting on the wrong side of faith.

A Growing Problem

I think the problem will continue to get worse as the national culture becomes less Christian-friendly and the church loses traction as a relevant social institution, particularly among youth. Add a strong postmodern strain to this current age–one that affirms a diversity perspective suggesting that truth is relative and each individual’s perspective is as valid that of any other–and you have some potent social forces pushing in the opposite direction of faith.

We cannot ignore this insidious drain any longer. The price is too high. Not only is the spiritual wellbeing of our youth at risk, but the erosion in the church can only make God’s institution weaker. Too many churches are aging demographically. Grandparents and parents worship regularly, but the next generation, often living elsewhere, is not present anywhere on Sunday morning.


So the question is begged. What causes this apostasy? The easy way out is to chalk it up to individual factors. After all, do we not believe that each individual has to decide what she will do with Jesus? It is hard to debate that.

The problem, however, is that we are seeing ever more individuals leave the Christian context of their youth and decide that following Jesus is no longer important. With that in mind, I will offer three hypotheses for what is at the root of this apostasy.


People over 60 are very much from the 60’s culture. Those in their 40’s and 50’s are very much products of the 70’s and 80’s. Those under 25 react to now—the culture of today. Therefore, the more secularized Western culture becomes the more our youth are pulled away from the faith. We are in an era in which expressions of the Christian faith are politically correct only in private settings. The forces of secularism have driven the mention of God out of the public sector and public discourse. As that happens, the notion of God is not in the public consciousness. God is not hated. Our culture is not thrusting its collective middle finger skyward in rebellion. It is simply conducting the business of life as if God does not exist. It doesn’t care.


What makes this so critical is that our current culture is media-driven. In previous pre-cable, pre-internet times the local culture of the nuclear family, small town, city, or state had substantial influence. Cities as small as 50,000 published a daily newspaper, simply because the local culture—from politics to local high school sports—was a powerful shaping mechanism. In that more Christian-friendly time, those newspapers and even the public schools offered little resistance to the mention of God.

That is gone now. If you believe in God you can tell the world on Facebook, but if you are on NBC it is only your opinion and they don’t cover “God and church news.”

Irrelevance of God

In short, young people today are growing up in a culture in which God is irrelevant. That is critical to understand, because if nothing else, young people thirst to be relevant. If people keep their faith to themselves, and even public figures who are Christians have to pick their spots when wishing to identify themselves as believers, God becomes largely absent from personal consciousness. This out-of-sight-out-of mind phenomenon is exactly what secularists have hoped to achieve over the years. Whereas in the 50’s and 60’s, and even later, believing in God and at least espousing and respecting Judeo-Christian values was the cultural norm, today the default position is secularism. There is no pro-God social pressure. Daily life is to be lived independent of an active relationship with, or even faith in God. There may be a God and there may not be one. What is more pressing is that there is work to done, lunch to be eaten, and ballgames and movies to be watched.


Rev. Gene Lee, the very able pastor of the Community Church in Laughlin, Nevada, isolated on the second reason: spiritually dysfunctional families. Again, there are no statistics for this, something Lee made clear in his address, but after wondering for years why some seemingly “covenant children” leave the faith while others remain, he settled on a distinction between those who remained and those who left. The latter came from spiritually dysfunctional families. I found the distinction compelling, because his experience with this, growing up in California, squared perfectly with my observations traveling the country.

Spiritual Dysfunction in the Family Context

By spiritually dysfunctional, Lee was talking about families in which the parents’ private conduct is not consistent with their public image or profession. It may involve something as spectacular as an affair, but more often it is about unloving, uncaring, and even hostile relationships. The family is active in the church—in the two examples below that is very evident—and the parents profess a solid personal Christian faith, but the interactions between them and often with their children are at best unhealthy, and at worst clearly out of synch with the New Testament directives for relational conduct.

Tale of Two Families

This is best described anecdotally. We will use the families of two couples, Scott and Lisa, and Josh and Mary.

Scott was a very famous pastor, famous at the Christianity Today level. His big-city church was nationally known and his ministries discussed in at least three books. Lisa was artistically gifted and taught at a rather exclusive elementary school. Scott and Lisa both graduated from a very well-known Christian college. They had four children.

As the years passed, Scott’s ministry devoured ever more of his time. Lisa became bitter, feeling left behind to do her professional work and manage the home and children. The issue simmered for months, years, and even decades. According to Scott, there were many loud and nerve-rattling arguments followed by efforts at making up. The situation, however, never improved. It eventually became so hostile that Scott was relieved when one his children would accompany Lisa and him on an outing or vacation, as the presence of the youngster was a deterrent to open verbal warfare. Though threats of divorce dotted many of the skirmishes, neither of them wanted to part if only because of their negative view of divorce.

After more than thirty years of marriage, most of them turbulent, and with the children out of the house, Scott and Lisa finally reached the end. They divorced. The reactions among the church members was mixed. Some were shocked and disappointed, while other more veteran members were surprised the pair persisted as long as they did. Both remained in the same city. Scott left his pastorate and worked for another Christian organization and Lisa continued her professional work.

The children? Throughout Scott’s pastorate the children were visibly present. The eldest daughter, who went on to a distinguished professional career of her own, was dutifully involved, often taking leadership in church activities. To the best of my knowledge none of the four children is currently active in the faith. So successful was Scott’s two-decade tenure that there are still special commemorations and anniversaries of some of the now powerful ministries that were his brainchild. One ministry in particular has a national following. None of Scott’s children ever attend these events, and no one from the still thriving church seems to have any consistent contact with any of them. It is as if they had never been there.

One of Scott’s favorite sayings was, “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear your words.” It may well speak to the spiritual biography of his family. I am sure Scott and Lisa said the right words, and I know what a faithful servant of God Scott was, but in the case of their children, their actions may well have drown out their words of Christian guidance.

Josh and Mary had five children. Josh was a professor at a Christian college and Mary was a highly regarded public school kindergarten teacher. Both came from Christian families and both graduated from a renowned evangelical Christian college. Both, however, had “issues.”

Mary, having come from an authoritarian family, was self-effacing and extremely private. She sacrificed honesty for compliance. Hence, she rarely revealed her genuine inner self to Josh. Josh, highly energetic and extroverted, wanted to please Mary. Over time, however, he began to realize that she often had not been honest with her feelings in their relationship. He felt betrayed. In addition, Josh had would one might call a “flash” anger problem. When feeling provoked, he might—with no warning–verbally strike out at someone he felt had wronged him. As the years passed, his anger and Mary’s reticence drove them ever further apart. Mary unintentionally undercut Josh by protecting her children from his displeasure. Josh, realizing that his wife seemed unable to control their behavior, became an unbending disciplinarian.

Josh and Mary both were very dedicated to the Christian wellbeing of their children. They made the faith central in the raising of their five offspring, even to the extent of providing a Christian college education. It was ineffective, at least for three of them. The children witnessed the daily tension in the marriage, losing respect for their passive, parentally permissive mother and disliking the anger of their forceful father. The oldest child left college, but did not return home. He traveled to a number of cities, cohabiting with a young woman or two and working different jobs, while staying away from his parents and the church. Another graduated from a Christian college but renounced his faith. Still another left home and never looked back after graduating from high school. Her contact with her parents is best described as obligatory and formal.

These are just two families. I could discuss more. What is striking is that these were not “lukewarm” Christian families. Each parent was a professing Christian, overt in a desire that the children grow up to a life of discipleship. The only conclusion to which I can come is that the children’s less than mature faith could not endure the polarity of Christian testimony juxtaposed with unloving, even hateful behavior among their parents who were professing that faith. The behavior invalidated the testimony. In the end, the testimony had no authenticity, no power, and the children left their parents and the faith behind.

The stories of the two families may well be summarized by another of Scott’s favorite sayings, “Most lessons are caught, not taught.”


Though a part of the national culture, the impact of secularism in higher education is a unique factor in apostasy. This has been going on for decades, easily over 50 years, but due to the secularization of the larger culture, the secular forces in higher education have become emboldened


It is not surprising that the faith crisis for the young person occurs when she heads for the university. One reason is that heading for college involves a radical change of turf. Many of these young people have grown up in a community of faith, one in which the existence of God and the truths of Christianity are accepted as unquestioned facts. External threats to belief are expunged, such that faith communities either reject those that are skeptical, or choose not to associate with them. In brief, non-believers are labeled as evil and incorrect in their thinking.

In faith communities, youth quickly learn that questioning religious doctrine and belief is not a way of ingratiating oneself with the adult community. Whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, often the faith is “protected” through the use of guilt and fear. Guilt over doubt, and a fear of social disapproval–or of God’s wrath itself–are powerful weapons against questioning religious doctrine. I once heard a professor in a Christian college say, “In such communities, it takes more courage not to join the church at 18, than to join.”

Those who attempt to “safeguard the truth” are well meaning. They take Proverbs 22: 6 (“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it”) seriously. Their zeal emerges from having come from historical traditions in which neglecting to do so has been costly. In some cases this neglect meant being unprepared to deal with persecution from a growing secular opposition. In others, it brought about a gradual secularizing of succeeding generations such that religious vitality dissipated into secular stagnation.

In any case, training is not the same as educating; it can be an unintentional form of intimidation. Hence, when believers leave spiritually friendly turf for one that rejects—and perhaps even ridicules the very existence of one’s faith—the effect is jarring. In the secular educational and professional environment truth is not measured against religious beliefs, but by the standards of science and popular opinion. These institutions have become characterized by a virulent, almost militant agnosticism, one that attacks the very faith tenets on which many were founded.

Specific and Powerful Factors

Not surprisingly, Christian students commonly experience a crisis in faith upon entering a high-powered academic environment. They find their faith inadequate to answer the kind of primal questions with which they are confronted. There are several reasons for this. One is that education is secular. It makes the existence of anything beyond the temporal–here-and-now–irrelevant.1 Science is the revealer of all that is true, with no room even to entertain the supernatural.2 Only ideas that can be proven scientifically or through unimpeachable linear logic are of value.

Furthermore, education claims to be value-free with all research supposedly carried out in a wholly objective fashion, with no pre-existing values. This mindset rules out any sense of God or morality. Of course, there is no truly value-free scholarship. Values guide every decision any human makes including what one chooses to study. Within every discipline are theories, points of view, and “schools of thought” that are matters of opinion rather than fact.3 This fact is well beyond the sophistication of most undergraduates and even many graduate students.

Education is also reductionistic. To make the search for reality manageable, scholars move away from holistic thinking toward reductionism, accepting as valid only that which is observable or experimentally verifiable. A psychologist, a biologist, and a physicist will study the same thing from a totally different point of view, depending on their field, each getting only a partial insight into reality.4

Hearn makes this point using a clever fable in which a social scientist remarks the sheep in Scotland are black, after watching such a sheep grazing on a hillside

“What you mean,” corrects the biologist, “is that at least one sheep in Scotland is black.”

“No, no,” interjects the physicist, “you need to be much more precise. All we can conclude from this observation is that there is at least on sheep in Scotland, one side of which is black.”5

The educational doctrine that scientific statements—secular, value-free, and reductionistic–are all there is to reality constitutes a worldview, a philosophy that poses a potent intellectual challenge for those brought up to live in faith.

Gone now is the certainty of scripture, the Apostle’s Creed, and the catechism. It just doesn’t count. In fact, the stylish thing to do is either to join the community of doubt, or simply live in a world of quiet, intellectual uncertainty.

Importance of Age

For many, this intellectual struggle begins at an age in which one is regularly tossing out the bathwater of childhood, in an attempt to have the baby of youth reach independent adulthood. It is a time when a person is repeatedly sifting out that which she believes and can incorporate into a personal identity, from that which was merely taught.

Age looms large for another reason. The early adult years are high-energy, long-term planning years. This planning is done in a cultural environment in which people are told their “whole life is in front of them.” In addition, the social surrounding vibrates with youth and energy, one that has a powerful death-denying quality about it. Such a throbbing, life-suffused environment is not conducive to mulling over what happens when one dies. The here-and-now is so all encompassing that the cold reality that it is the destiny of each person to die, as the writer of Hebrews reminds his readers (9:27), is pushed all but out of one’s consciousness. In such an environment, spiritual issues are unlikely to get much play.

This crisis is quiet but intense. It goes to one’s very identity. What are called into question are the very core concepts of one’s reality, taught by the people in whom one has had the greatest human trust. At an age in which one seeks certainty in an environment of gurgling change, the most fundamental form of uncertainty is encountered.

Regrettably, the Christian community frequently makes an already bad situation immediately worse, when it deals with secular challenges in an adversarial fashion, damning secularism while offering no reasons to believe. Rather than listening, thinking through, and responding with reason to agnostic probes, Christian spokespeople frequently attack and even demonize those who would challenge faith. None of this is helpful to young believers in doubt. In short the serious student is in need of meaningful answers rather than doctrinal militancy. And when answers are not given it is easy to assume there simply are no answers.


Young people who encounter intellectual challenges to their faith experience guilt. After all, if God’s benchmark for acceptance is faith–rock-solid trust in his word–then how can one feel comfortable entertaining doubt? This dilemma can have a powerful grip on the psyche, leaving one with no convenient escape routes.

Doubt can leave the person with a sense of being disloyal toward God. For many there is also the fear upsetting family and friends, making it tempting to choose to shut their thinking eyes, grit their intellectual teeth, and try to run against the wind of doubt. Choosing simply to swallow the doubt–attempting to deny and wish it away–leaves an intellectually unsatisfying, internally dishonest feeling.

Denial is dangerous. It is an attempt to reject what has already occurred. No matter how much one tries to deny the piercing nature of the seemingly unanswered questions regarding matters of faith, the seeds of uncertainty have already been planted. Pressing forward in some pseudo-heroic state of denial often ends in a mammoth crisis of faith once those quietly sown inner seeds of doubt have had time to take root in the psyche and grow into a plaguing conscious force.

Riddled with doubt, unable to get answers, not wanting to upset family and friends, at this point the young adult may very well “shut down,” keeping her doubts to herself as her faith withers away.


I have seen this faith-abandoning scenario play out a number of times. I will use the story of Edward as an example. He grew up in one of those small towns, the kind with more churches than bars, one in which a very simple, unsophisticated faith was taught in church, Sunday School, Bible Class, and catechism. In other words, that simple Gospel was drilled in from every angle, albeit in a rather basal fashion.

Edward was very bright and precocious—intellectually gifted and curious. His Christian upbringing had the impact of his considering the ministry as his calling. The Kingdom had a real superstar prospect.

Graduating from high school near the top of his class, Edward was accepted into arguably the strongest research university in the region. He majored in philosophy. In four years he gained a baccalaureate degree but lost his faith.

Today Edward appears to be an agnostic, no more interested in the things of the Kingdom than he is in the annual rainfall of Belgium.


To combat apostasy the church and the Christian college have a three-pronged mission. They must stand for boldly for truth in a cunningly secular culture. The church must get serious about ministering to families, fearlessly confronting the “dirty little secrets” that destroy Christian as well as non-believing families, while colleges need to address family relationships more directly. Finally, these institutions need to realize that, particularly among young people, the spiritual battle of our time is being waged on the turf of the mind. We are fighting for the minds of our youth in a culture that is becoming increasingly complex and technologically advanced. Churches and Christian colleges need to educate those minds in the light of divine truth and engage the probing questions of their young people. They can do that. In fact, they must do that. Or we can watch more spiritually naive Edwards head off to secular institutions, ones that will ready them for a life in which the Kingdom is irrelevant.


1. Walter R. Hearn, Being a Christian in Science (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 12.

2. George W. Andrews, “Geology,” in Christ and the Modern Mind, ed. Robert W. Smith (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVaristy Press, 1972), 264.

3. E. Mansell Pattison, “Psychology,” in Christ and the Modern Mind, 188.

4. Hearn, 17.

5. Ibid., 18.

Dr. David Claerbaut is a Research Methodologist at Grand Canyon University and the Publisher of Faithandlearningforum.com. 

[5] Tale of Two Families

by Philip Yancey

This is a reflection on the families of two sisters.  The first, Joyce, ruled with the iron hand of legalism.  Her five kids obeyed a lengthy set of strict rules—“Because I say so, that’s why!” Now grown, they tell me they acquiesced mainly out of fear of punishment.

Joyce’s family devotions often centered on the Old Testament—”Honor your parents,” “Fear the Lord,” “Stop grumbling”…  The word grace rarely came up.  When her children got married, Joyce told them, “If your marriage fails, don’t bother coming back here.  You made a vow to God, so keep it.”

All of Joyce’s children have struggled with self-image problems.  They admit it has taken many years for them to think of God as loving, and even now that concept seems more intellectual than experiential.  Joyce and her husband have softened into grandparents, but affection still does not come easily to anyone in the family. Yet here is a striking fact: defying an overwhelming national trend, all five of those children remain married to their original partners.  They’ve chosen jobs in the helping professions.  All but one are raising their own children in the faith.  At some level, strictness and legalism in this family produced results.

In contrast to Joyce, her sister Annette determined to break out of the rigidity of their own upbringing.  She vowed not to punish her children, choosing rather to love them, comfort them, and calmly explain when they did something wrong.  Her family devotions skipped past the Old Testament and focused on Jesus’ astonishing parables of grace and forgiveness.

Annette especially loved the story of the Prodigal Son.  “We are those parents,” she would tell her children.  “No matter what you do, no matter what happens, we’ll be here waiting to welcome you back.”

Unfortunately, Annette and her husband would have many opportunities to role-play the parents of the prodigal.  One daughter contracted AIDS through sexual promiscuity.  Another is on her fourth marriage.  A son alternates between prison and a drug rehab center.

Annette has indeed kept her promise, always welcoming her children home.  She looks after the grandchildren, posts bail, and covers mortgage payments—whatever it takes to live out her commitment of long-suffering love.  I marvel at her spirit of grace and acceptance.  “What do you expect?” she shrugs.  “They’re my children.  You don’t stop loving your own children.”

I grew up in a home and church more like Joyce’s.  After a period of rejection and rebellion, I discovered a God of love and forgiveness.  (More accurately, God found me).  I ended up as a Christian writer, piping the tune of grace.  My brother, raised in the same environment, tossed faith aside.  He now attends what he calls an “atheist church”—a Sunday gathering of humanists who spend much time talking about and opposing a God they don’t believe in—and stocks his bookshelf with works by noted atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun,” concluded the Teacher of Ecclesiastes.  “Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning.  Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”

A friend of mine, a wise counselor, says that human behavior can be explained by three things: nature (or heredity), nurture (including family upbringing), and free will.  Regrettably, these–he quickly admits–explain very little, for these ingredients combine in different ways in all of us.  Loving, supportive families sometimes produce wounded and rebellious children; harsh or dysfunctional families sometimes produce the opposite.  In between lies mystery—and God’s grace.

Why do some children of Christian families leave the faith while others live lives of discipleship?   Celebrated Christian author weighs in on the mysteries of Christian families and the even greater mystery of God’s grace.  This is reprinted with permission from philipyancey.com.

[4] Notable People in Psychology of Religion

by Michael E Nielsen, PhD. Professor and Chair of Psychology, Georgia Southern University

Many psychological theorists have had interesting perspectives on religion. Here you will find an overview of some of the classic views Other good sources for further information are Fuller’s Psychology and Religion book, or Wulff’s Psychology of Religion.

William James  (1842-1910)

A U.S. psychologist and philosopher, James served as president of American Psychological Association, and wrote one of the first psychology textbooks. In the psychology of religion, James’s influence endures. His Varieties of Religious Experience is considered to be the classic work in the field, and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in psychology and religion. Indeed, references to James’s ideas are common at professional conferences. It reminds me of the saying, “to learn a new idea, read an old book.”

James distinguished between institutional religion and personal religion. Institutional religion refers to the religious group or organization, and plays an important part in a society’s culture. Personal religion, in which the individual has a mystical experience, can be experienced regardless of the culture. James was most interested in understanding personal religious experience.

If personal religious experiences were what James preferred, dogmatism was something that he disliked. Dogmatic thought, whether religious or scientific, was anathema to James. The importance of James to the psychology of religion–and to psychology more generally–is difficult to overstate. He discussed many essential issues that remain of vital concern today.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

A psychiatrist, Freud laid the foundation of psychoanalysis and has had a tremendous influence on modern culture. Many of people’s beliefs about unconscious thought, childhood, and parenthood stem from Freud. In his broad theories, he attempted to explain about how we are influenced by past events and by things outside our conscious awareness.

Very simply stated, Freud suggested that people experience conflicts between what we want to do (represented by our Id) and what we are told by society and parents that we should do (represented by the Superego). This conflict is resolved, to a greater or lesser degree, by the Ego. Freud viewed religion as originating in the child’s relationship to the father; hence in many cultures God is viewed as a Heavenly Father. In this way, religion reflects an attempt to fulfill our wishes, and is an illusion.

Freud strived to be objective, although by current standards the methods Freud used probably allowed his biases to influence his data. His influence in psychology has declined over the years; fewer than 10% of the American Psychological Association describe themselves as having psychoanalytic perspectives. In the American Psychological Society, that figure drops to less than 5%. Still, psychoanalytic interpretations of religion remain popular in some circles.

Alfred Adler (1870-1937

An Austrian psychiatrist who parted ways with Freud, Adler emphasized the role of goals and motivation in his Individual Psychology. One of Adler’s most famous ideas is that we try to compensate for inferiorities that we perceive in ourselves. A lack of power often lies at the root of feelings of inferiority. One way that religion enters into this picture is through our beliefs in God, which are characteristic of our tendency to strive for perfection and superiority. For example, in many religions God is considered to be perfect and omnipotent, and commands people likewise to be perfect. If we too achieve perfection, we become one with God. By identifying with God in this way, we compensate for our imperfections and feelings of inferiority.

Our ideas about God are important indicators of how we view the world. According to Adler these ideas have changed over time, as our vision of the world–and our place in it–has changed. Consider this example that Adler offers: the traditional belief that people were placed deliberately on earth as God’s ultimate creation, is being replaced with the idea that people have evolved by natural selection. This coincides with a view of God not as a real being, but as an abstract representation of nature’s forces. In this way, our view of God has changed from one that was concrete and specific to one that is more general. From Adler’s vantage point, this is a relatively ineffective perception of God because it is so general that it fails to convey a strong sense of direction and purpose.

Much of Adler’s writing is devoted to social movements. In this context, religion is important in at least two ways. First, we need to understand that Adler is interested mainly in the idea of God as a motivator, and not in the question of whether or not God exists. What is important is that God (or the idea of God) motivates people to act, and that those actions do have real consequences for ourselves and for others. Adler suggests that we are left with two options. We can either assume that we are at the center of the world–both ours and God’s–and that God will care for us as we wait passively for attention, or we can assume that we are the center of the world, and actively work to achieve society’s interest. Adler’s point is that if we assume that we have power over our surroundings, then we will act in ways that benefit the world around us. Our view of God is important because it embodies our goals and directs our social interactions.

The second way that religion is important is that it exerts a great influence on our social environment, and is important as a powerful social movement itself. Compared to science, another social movement, religion is more advanced because it motivates people more effectively. According to Adler, only when science begins to capture the same religious fervor, and promotes the welfare of all segments of society, will the two be more equal in people’s eyes. (Some people would say that this is already happening…. What do you think?) To learn more about Adler, check out his books and these web sites.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

For a time Jung was Freud’s pupil, but left Freud’s following when they disagreed over the importance of sexuality and spirituality to one’s psychological development. (Freud emphasized sexuality over spirituality; Jung disagreed.) Their parting is described as being quite intense, almost as though Jung were being excommunicated from Freud’s “church.”

Jung was concerned with the interplay between conscious and unconscious forces. He proposed two kinds of unconscious: personal and collective. Personal unconscious (or “shadow”) includes those things about ourselves that we would like to forget. The collective unconscious refers to events that we all share, by virtue of having a common heritage (humanity). For example, the image (archetype) of a mythic hero is something that is present in all cultures. Archetypes such as these might be viewed as Gods, because they are outside the individual’s ego.

Jung had much to say about Christian and Eastern religions. He was fascinated with non-Western views, and sought to find some common ground between East and West. In doing so, Jung had a very broad view of what it means to be empirical. Suppose, for example, that I hear a voice from deity but that you do not, even though we are sitting next to each other. If only one person experiences something, for Jung it is an empirical observation. For most contemporary scientists, however, it would not be considered an empirical observation. Because of this, there has been regrettably little research in the psychology of religion from a Jungian perspective.

Gordon Allport (1897-1967)

Allport made important contributions to the psychology of personality, helping to refine the concept of “traits.” His interest in differences among individuals–which is what personality psychology is–carried over into his work in the psychology of religion. His classic book, The Individual and His Religion, shows Allport’s interest in people as individuals. It also illustrates how people may use religion in different ways. Mature religious sentiment is how Allport characterized the person whose approach to religion is dynamic, open-minded, and able to maintain links between inconsistencies. In contrast, Immature religion is self-serving and generally represents the negative stereotypes that people have about religion.

Later, Allport and Ross devised “religious orientation” scales to measure these two approaches to religion. The intrinsic religious orientation reflects an interest in religion itself. The extrinsic orientation toward religion is one where religious behavior is a means to some other end. Consider, for example, the motivations behind people’s church attendance. Intrinsically oriented people attend church as an end itself, while extrinsically oriented people may do the same action because it is a way to meet people, or because it helps them cope with stress in their lives. Religious orientation has remained a focal point in the psychology of religion, despite periodic criticism that it has outlasted its usefulness.

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

What makes someone psychologically healthy? This was the question that guided Maslow’s work. He saw too much emphasis in psychology on negative behavior and thought, and wanted to supplant it with a psychology of mental health. To this end, he developed a hierarchy of needs, ranging from lower level physiological needs, through love and belonging, to self- actualization. Self-actualized people are those who have reached their potential for self-development. Maslow claimed that mystics are more likely to be self-actualized than are other people. Mystics also are more likely to have had “peak experiences,” experiences in which the person feels a sense of ecstasy and oneness with the universe. Although his hierarchy of needs sounds appealing, researchers have had difficulty finding support for his theory.

An important criticism that Maslow leveled at psychology concerned scientists’ efforts to keep values out of their work. Most psychologists see this as an attempt to avoid bias, but to Maslow it reflects a lack of value for things that are important. According to Maslow, a science without values can not be used to show that murder or genocide is bad. This can be remedied by adopting a broader approach to the subject matter, and by concerning ourselves with people’s choices and values.

One outgrowth of Maslow’s work is what has become known as Transpersonal Psychology, in which the focus is on the spiritual well-being of individuals, and values are advocated steadfastly. Transpersonal psychologists seek to blend Eastern religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) or Western (Christian, Jewish or Moslem) mysticism with a form of modern psychology. Frequently, the transpersonal psychologist rejects psychology’s adoption of various scientific methods used in the natural sciences.

The influence of the transpersonal movement remains small, but there is evidence that it is growing. I suspect that most psychologists would agree with Maslow that much of psychology — including the psychology of religion — needs an improved theoretical foundation.

Erik H. Erikson (1902-1994)

Erikson is best known for his theory of psychological development, which has its roots in the psychoanalytic importance of identity in personality. Erikson believed that proper psychological development occurs in a series of eight stages, which must follow a specific sequence. Associated with each stage is a positive resolution of an identity conflict, a “virtue,” or a negative failure to resolve the conflict, a “pathology.” A positive resolution to the conflict helps prepare the person to move on to address challenges of the next conflict. Erikson’s theory places most of the emphasis on the first two decades of life, with six of the eight stages happening by young adulthood. Still, Erikson is noted for extending the notion of development into adulthood.

His biographies of Gandhi and Luther reveal Erikson’s positive view of religion. He considered religions to be important influences in successful personality development because they are the primary way that cultures promote the virtues associated with each stage of life. Religious rituals facilitate this development. Erikson’s theory has not benefited from systematic empirical study, but it remains an influential and well-regarded theory in the psychological study of religion.

Dr. Mike Nielsen, Professor and Chair of the Georgia Southern University Psychology Department permitted the publication of this article from his  excellent website on the psychology of religion–www.psywww.com/psyrelig/.

[3] Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

A Christian Perspective

by Andrew Pfeifer, Director of the Office of Distant Education, Andrews University

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition

and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”

-Colossians 2:8 NIV


One of the most commonly adopted theories regarding human needs, motivation and learning is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The western world in particular has based much of its work in educational, business and motivational theories on the assumption that Maslow was right.

Ewart Woolridge goes so far to call Maslow the “high priest” of needs and motivation and his theories are widely accepted and used.  His hierarchy of needs theory is attractive, according to Woolridge, because it “provides a practical and understandable picture” of needs. 1

Maslow has been long recognized as a leading voice for the humanist movement and his hierarchy of needs theory is a classic example of the humanist philosophy at work.  Maslow’s work has slowly become accepted as fact and is no longer given much critical though or evaluation, even in Christian schools where a little critique by teachers and students ought to produce some concern or at least raise questions.

Christian schools need to develop Christian scholars rather a mere academic consumer who believes in whatever the newest theory is.  The end result of a Christian classroom where faith and learning are truly integrated needs to be the development of critically thinking Christian students who look intelligently at the world around them through the wisdom and discernment of a Christian world view.

James Sire calls for critical thinking when he writes, “It is these (unexamined presuppositions) which we need to identify, analyze and critique if we are to integrate our faith and academic study. ”2 Parker Palmer is his extraordinary book, To Know as We are Known puts it this way, “The way we teach depends on the way we think people know, we cannot amend our pedagogy until our epistemology is transformed.” 3

In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden argues for creating schools that teach and promote the highest levels of Christian critical thought.4 Arthur Holmes also calls for Christian colleges to become both more Christian and more intellectual, saying in effect that Christian education’s work is not yet complete nor finished. 5

During the 22nd Faith and Learning Seminar sponsored by the Institute for Christian teaching held at Bogenhofen Seminary, Austria where this paper was first presented, quality Christian critical thinking was called for repeatedly.  Gary Land stated that “we must evaluate these ideas critically.”6 Land again called for Christian scholarship in his second presentation, stating that subject  that requires our utmost effort needs to be taken seriously and examined Christianly as a seek for truth. 7

Leonard Brand also took the opportunity this seminar provided to emphasize the importance of critical Christian scholarship by writing, “Teach students to think critically and evaluate what they are reading.  Help students learn to recognize the difference between data, interpretation and assumptions… search for a reinterpretation, based on Christian assumptions.”8

Enrique Beccerra put it succinctly, “Spiritual development does not take place without critical thinking.”9 Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and more recently, J.P Moreland, Mark Noll, R.C. Sproul, are joined by secular authors in calling for a further development of our critical thinking skills. 10 Stanley I. Greenspan in the Growth of the Mind warns of the decline in our culture’s creative and analytic abilities and suggests that Western culture needs to encourage critical thinking skills in school and at home. 11

Simply put, we need to learn how to think critically and as Christians we need to take these educational challenges very seriously.  An examination of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory can provide an example of Christian scholarship at work.

Abraham Maslow:  The Man and His Theory

“Children make themselves into something.”-Abraham Maslow12  Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970) was born in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at the City of College of New York and the University of Wisconsin.  Maslow taught psychology for 14 years at Brooklyn college where he was one of few professors who cared for any of the largely immigrant student body.  The student deeply appreciated his concern for them and Maslow became the most popular teacher there.  So popular in fact that he was called the “Frank Sinatra of Brooklyn College.” 13

Maslow eventually moved to Brandeis University where he spent the remainder of his teaching career,  It was at Brandies that Maslow developed a theory of motivation describing the process by which an individual progresses from basic needs such as food and water to the highest needs, which he called “self-actualization,” or the fulfillment of one’s greatest potential.

Maslow’s definition of self-actualization came from his studies of exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Fredrick Douglass.  This was a radical departure from the chief schools of psychology of the era.  Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner were the leaders of the day where the study of mentally ill or neurotic people or animals was the norm.

Maslow felt that Freud saw little difference between the motivation of humans and animals.  We are supposedly rational beings; however we do not always behave that way. Maslow felt Freud’s work was overly pessimistic and a “crippled philosophy.”  Skinner, on the other hand, studied how pigeons and white rats learned.  Maslow observed that Skinner’s motivational models were based on simple rewards such as food and water, sex, and avoidance of pain.  Command your dong to site and give the dog a treat when s/he sites or punished when the dog does not obey and after several  repetitions of the command to sit s/he will sit when you command him/her to do so.  Skinner also has contributed much to furthering our understanding of how the mind works and the study of motivation by Maslow thought that psychologist should instead study the playfulness and affection of animals and people.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provided an alternative to the depressing determinism he found in Freud and Skinner.  Maslow felt that people were basically trustworthy, self-protecting, and self-governing.  Humans tend toward growth and love, and although there is a continuous cycle of war, murder, and deceit, Maslow believed that human nature was not meant to be violent.  Violence and other evils occur when human needs are thwarted.  In other words, people who are deprived of basic needs such as food or safety may provide for their needs or defend themselves by violent means.  Maslow did not believe that humans are violent because they enjoy violence, or that they cheat, lie or steal because they like doing so.

It is worth noting that Maslow arrived at these conclusions by observing that animals functioned with fundamental patterns of needs.  He proposed that mankind was an evolved animal and applied the instinctive behavior of the animal kingdom to mankind. 14

Theorists such as Maslow believe that learning is growth.  As Christian educators, we need to better understand what motivates students in order to encourage growth thereby encouraging learning.  Maslow believed that the best way to learn and grow as human beings is to work our way up through the levels in his hierarchy, eventually arriving at a point of complete holistic awareness.

Maslow’s theory promotes individualism and became a cornerstone for the rise of humanism in the sixties and seventies.  Henry Lamberton comments that Maslow’s contribution to humanism in part caused people to feel that their only public duty was to follow their own interest as far as possible, limited only by the rule that we do not unfairly limit the freedom of others. 15

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs originally distinguished five levels of needs that must be satisfied in order to produce a healthy, fully functioning human being.  Near the end of his life Maslow added two new levels, cognitive and aesthetic. 16 If one or more of Maslow’s needs is not satisfied, Elizabeth Puttick writes, “the individual will tend to be arrested at the developmental stage, unable to progress to further stages until that need is met.”17

Maslow’s original levels of needs Maslow’s revised levels of needs
  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-Actualization
1.   Physiological
2.   Safety3.   Belonging4.   Esteem5.   Cognitive6.   Aesthetics7.   Self-Actualization

Table 1. Comparison of Maslow’s Original and Revised Levels of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theorizes that each of these levels must be adequately satisfied starting at physiological needs and working toward self-actualization needs.  Finally one arrives at the same level of development such Maslow examples of self-actualization as Einstein and Roosevelt.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of  Needs

Since Maslow’s theory of needs begins by addressing the lower level of needs and working you way to up his hierarchy, we will define his terms in order as well.  These definitions were developed from Shunk (1996) and O’Connell (1992). 18


  • Physiological Needs.  These are the basic body needs for continued existence, such as food, water, and air.  People deprived of these needs will seek to satisfy them by any means possible, including working for slave wages, begging and stealing.
  • Safety Needs.  To grow and learn we need to fell secure in our lives and jobs.  We need to certain stability in our lives.  We need some structure and order in our everyday living such as a safe place to rest our heads and nourish our souls, a “territorial” place that is ours, were we are safe and warm.  A castle of protection, as it was.
  • Belonging needs.  “Often referred to as love and belonging needs,” human beings are social by nature and seeking out groups or individuals to form partnerships, friendships, and alliances with.  Humankind is driven to fin companionship and love.
  • Esteem needs.  Most human beings need to feel not just loved by needed by their community.  We need to feel that we can contribute something worthwhile.  For some this need for esteem will be satisfied through great achievement, as a teacher, administrator, or scientist.  Others may find these needs satisfied by being a patron of the arts or serving on a school board.  Still others may choose to help in noble causes such as saving the planet’s ecology, help orphaned children, or going on mission trips.
  • Cognitive needs.  These have to do with how we understand the world around us.  We seek knowledge, we have a curious mind.  Human beings desire to uncover facts, to know the “truth”, to discover the laws of the universe and everything within it, including us and others.
  • Aesthetic needs. Our needs for order, symmetry, design, harmony, and beauty.  If we cannot express a satisfactory aesthetic statement ourselves, we will try to satisfy this need through work of others, whether it be art, music, poetry, film, or another medium.
  • Self-actualization.  Achieved when one can embody the highest potential that s/he is capable of reaching.  Once all the other needs are taken care of, there remains a yearning to explore and to actualize our individual talents and gifts, to be expressive, creative, dynamic selves with freedom to master our fate or perhaps to experience that overwhelming and mystical sense of being in perfect harmony and at one with the universe.

There is a great deal of truth in Maslow’s theory and that is why it has been so widely adopted into western education and business practices.  However I believe that Maslow is misguided.  As a critically thinking Christian, I cannot help but critique his hierarchy for failing to recognize that animal instinct is not always noble or good and that humanity cannot transcend base animal instinct without divine assistance and inspiration.

A Christian Response to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


“But seek ye first His Kingdom and His righteousness,nd all these things will be given to you as well.”

-Matthew 6:33

Maslow places his hierarchy of needs in a triangle-shape.  This implies a few things:  the lower level needs such as physiological, safety, belonging, and esteem take up more space and effort to satisfy than the upper levels, which seems to be less consuming or at least more focused.  Maslow believes that man would nobly move up his pyramid, eventually arriving at a humanistic god-like state of complete self-actualization.

I hold that Maslow is overly optimistic in his estimate of what motivates man.  There are many who do enjoy doing wrong purely for the perverse joy or excitement of the act.  St. Augustine, for example, stole pears as a child not because he was hungry or to give to the starving by just for the “thrill of the sin”.19 We all know people who lie, steal and cheat for no reason other than they like doing so.  Mankind is flawed and does not operate under the noble design of God or even humanists such as Maslow felt it should.  Man is often motivated by things far less dignified than Maslow theorized.

Further critique is offered by  Viktor Frankl regarding self-actualization: “What is called self –actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would miss it.  In other words, self-actualization is possible as a side-effect of self transcendence.”20

While Frankl is still missing the mark for a truly Christian understanding of human transcendence, he has merit in his doubt regarding the possibility of self-actualization.  I would add that true self-transcendence is achieved only through divine means.

So what is a possible Christian response to this widely held theory of what motivates mankind and its implications to the classroom?

John the beloved writes, ”Thy kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18:36). He explains that life under God’s control is strikingly different from the secular quest of unfulfilled and unsatisfied with needs.  Jesus Christ makes it more clear by advising his disciples to not be concerned with food, clothing, housing, comfort, and money when doing his father’s work (Luke 9: 3-5).  Christ further tells us that God is actively involved in providing for our best interests, and is intimately interested in you, even down to the number of hairs, however rapidly diminishing that may or may not be on our heads (Luke 12:7).

Christ is simply saying , “Let everything rest on me. Let our relationship be your balancing point. Let me transcend your hierarchy of needs into something glorious,” While Maslow in effect is saying that man provides for his own needs or fails to grow.

Donald Kraybill, in his book The Upside-Down Kingdom examines how God’s kingdom inverts the values that drive our society.  “Kingdom Values,” according to the author, “challenge the patterns of social life taken for granted in modern culture,” 21 Kraybill and Tom Sine, in Wild Hope, call for a Christian approach to life that would turn our secular hierarchy of needs on its head. 22

As Christian educators we are responsible for understanding the implications of such theories as Maslow’s and their influence on our minds and our students.  I believe that in a God-less theory, such as Maslow’s, mankind finds itself in a hopeless mess. This hierarchy of needs may show the best way to work within a flawed premise, but to quote Calvin Coolidge, “There is no right way to do the wrong thing.”

With Christ as the base of our new hierarchy, we turn the world upside down and we balance our needs on Him and not on ourselves.  Although the balancing point of this Christian hierarchy is smaller than the level that follow, I am suggesting that Christ is not limited to the tip of the triangle’s point, but rather, due to the dotted lines in the diagram below,  is integrated into all the other areas of needs.

In this “transcendent hierarchy” there are two features that need to be addressed.  The first feature is the use of the dotted lines to divide each need from the other.  This is done deliberately to show how all these needs are intertwined and connected to one another and how all are depended up Jesus Christ.  As a Christian, one believes that Christ is actively and intimately involved in the needs and concerns of daily life.  Christ provides true satisfaction of all our needs through a multitude of ways.  It is divine source that provides the soil, sun, water, and air, it is God that gives the spark of life that grows into your spouse, and it is Christ who offers you eternal love and heavenly value.

In this “transcendent hierarchy” there are two features that need to be addressed.  The first feature is the use of the dotted lines to divide each need from the other.  This is done deliberately to show how all these needs are intertwined and connected to one another and how all are depended up Jesus Christ.  As a Christian, one believes that Christ is actively and intimately involved in the needs and concerns of daily life.  Christ provides true satisfaction of all our needs through a multitude of ways.  It is divine source that provides the soil, sun, water, and air, it is God that gives the spark of life that grows into your spouse, and it is Christ who offers you eternal love and heavenly value.

Figure 3. Christian Hierarchy of Needs

The second feature is the arrows pointing upward and downward for each need.  This signifies the sliding or changing of importance that each need has during the various times in a person’s existence.  For example, we all have heard sorties of parents who are will to die for their children.  The parent placed far less importance on their own physiological and safety needs and far more importance on their love and belonging needs.  The starving artist is another example of someone who places a greater importance on aesthetic needs than other needs.

Abraham Maslow spent a life time studying this theory.  Further research is needed regarding this Christian or transcendent hierarchy.  Christian scholars need to address this theory with the same degree of academic interest.


“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers,

against the authorities, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

-Ephesians 6:12

This Christian hierarchy of needs has many examples of true-discipleship such as: Moses relinquishing the high life and ruling power in Egypt; Joseph giving up the security and comfort of being Potiphar’s chief of staff;  S/Paul walk away from a highly respected position in the Jewish faith, all content in God’s ability to transcend their needs into something far more worthwhile.  The list goes on.

Many Christian educators have adopted Maslow’s theory because it appears to make sense, but that is not enough.  We are called to a higher standard and need to critically examine each and every theory by our Christian beliefs.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is incomplete because it denies the most fundamental need of all, an individual relationship with our divine savior, Jesus Christ.

It is important how you choose to believe mankind is motivated by growth and learning.  Is the human begin pure and motivated soled by noble desires or is humanity flawed and in need of help achieving the best they can possibly be?  Do we need God or are we good enough without heavenly help?  A Christian education who agrees with Maslow, knowingly or not, is denying Christ his rightful place in our schools and our lives.  We need to think critically as Christian educators and students and recognize as Humberto Rassi said, “Due to the secularization of modern culture and naturalistic assumptions of most graduate programs, some Adventist teachers have unconsciously adopted a dualistic perspective on education.”23

Dualism is best described as two-sided approach to something.  In this case, Christian education.  For example in education as Rasi just observed, some Christian teachers developed a two-sided approach to education, where on the one had they believe in God and His creation yet on the other hand they teach in the classroom as if God had no place in any aspect of learning or thought.

Perhaps this paper will help some Christian educators put God back into the learning process.  Perhaps it may spark a dialogue regarding Christian critical thinking, quality Christian scholarship and further research of the conscious or unconscious assumptions help among Christian educators that lead, as Maslow’s hierarchy does, to a dualistic perspective of Christian education.  If so, then I humbly pleased.

“Finally, brother, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, hatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable,

if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.”


-Philippians 4:8 NIV




1Woolridge, E., Time to stand Maslow’s hierarchy on its head? People Management, December 21, 1995.

2 Sire, J., Discipleship of the Mind. 1990, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

3 Palmer, P.J., To Knows as We are Known. 1993, San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

4 Marsden, G.M., The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. 1997, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

5 Holmes, A.F., The Idea of a Christian College. 1975, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

6 Gary, L. Postmodernism: A Christian reflection. Paper presented at the 22 nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminar. 1998. Austria.

7 Gary, L. “A Biblical-Christian Approach to the Study of History”. Paper presented at the 22nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminar. 1998. Austria.

8 Brand, L. Christianity and Science. in Paper presented at the 22nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminar. 1998. Austria.

9 Beccera, E. The Role of an Adventist School in the Spiritual Development of Students. Paper presented at the 22nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminar. 1998. Austria.

10 See: C.S. Lewis,The abolition of man, The Case for Christianity, An experiment in criticism, and How should we then live?; J.P. Moreland, Love your God with all your mind and Scaling the secular city; Mark Noll, The scandal of the evangelical mind; and R.C. Sproul, Renewiing your mind and Lifeviews 

11 Greenspan, S.I.a.B.L.B., The Growth of the mind. 1997, Reading: Persus Books.

12 Maslow, A.H., The farther reaches of human nature. 1971, New York: The Viking Press.


13 Maslow, A.H., Motivation and Personality. 3rd ed. 1970, New York: HarperCollins Publisher.

14 Maslow, A.H., Toward a psychology of being. 2nd ed. 1968, New York: Harper & Row.

15 Lamberton, H. Thoughts on the intergartion of psychology and religion. in 22nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar. 1998. Austria: Boegenhoffen Seminary.

16 O’Connel, A.a.V.O.C., Choice and growth: The psychology of holistic growth, adjustment, and creativity. 1992, NJ: Prentice Hall.

17 Puttick, E., A new typology and socialogical model of religion based on the needs and values of Abraham Maslow. Journal of Beliefs and Values, 1997.

18 Shunk, D.H., Learning theories. 1996, New York: Harper & Row.

19 Lewis, G.R., Augustine: Monoistic mystic or holistic Christian? Christian Research Journal, 1996.

20 Frankl, V., Man’s search for meaning. 1977, New York: Pocket Books.

21 Kraybill, D.B., The upside-down kingdom. 1990, Scottdale: Herald Press.

22 Sine, T., Wild Hope. 1991, Turbridge Wells: Monarch.

23 Rasi, M. H. Worldviews, contemporary culture, and Adventist education. Paper presented at 22nd Integrating of Faith and Learning Seminar. 1998. Boegenhoffen Seminary, Austria.


Lewis, G.R., Augustine: Monoistic mystic or holistic Christian? Christian Research Journal, 1996.
Gary, L. A biblical-Christian approach to the study of history. in Paper presented at the 22 nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminar. 1998. Austria.

O’Connel, A.a.V.O.C., Choice and growth: The psychology of holistic growth, adjustment, and creativity. 1992, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brand, L. Christianity and science. in Paper presented at the 22 nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminar. 1998. Austria.

Sire, J., Discipleship of the Mind. 1990, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

Maslow, A.H., The farther reaches of human nature. 1971, New York: The Viking Press.

Greenspan, S.I.a.B.L.B., The Growth of the mind. 1997, Reading: Persus Books.

Holmes, A.F., The idea of a Christian college. 1975, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Shunk, D.H., Learning theories. 1996, New York: Harper & Row.

Frankl, V., Man’s search for meaning. 1977, New York: Pocket Books.

Maslow, A.H., Motivation and Personality. 3rd ed. 1970, New York: HarperCollins Publisher.

Puttick, E., A new typology and socialogical model of religion based on the needs and values of Abraham Maslow. Journal of Beliefs and Values, 1997.

Marsden, G.M., The outrageous idea of Christan Scholarship. 1997, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gary, L. Postmodernism: A Christian reflection. in Paper presented at the 22 nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminar. 1998. Austria.

Beccera, E. The role of an Adventist school in the spiritual development of students. in Paper presented at the 22 nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminar. 1998. Austria.

Lamberton, H. Thoughts on the intergartion of psychology and religion. in 22nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar. 1998. Austria: Boegenhoffen Seminary.

Woolridge, E., Time to stand Maslow’s hierarchy on its head? People Management, December 21, 1995.

Palmer, P.J., To knows as we are known. 1993, San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

Maslow, A.H., Toward a psychology of being. 2nd ed. 1968, New York: Harper & Row.

Kraybill, D.B., The upside-down kingdom. 1990, Scottdale: Herald Press.

Sine, T., Wild Hope. 1991, Turbridge Wells: Monarch.

M., R.H. Worldviews, contemporary culture, and Adventist education. in Paper presented at 22nd Integrating of Faith and Learning Seminar. 1998. Boegenhoffen Seminary, Austria.

Andrew Pfeifer is the Director of the Office of Distant Learning at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI.  This article was originally prepared for The 22nd Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar, Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen, Austria, August, 1998.

[2] A Hole in My Universe

by Philip Yancey

I never thought it strange, not having a father.  I was barely a year old when my father died, so I didn’t miss him.  How could I? I never knew him. In elementary school some kids didn’t know better than to ask, “How’d he die?” and when I told them polio, my status went up.  Bubonic plague or suicide wouldn’t have had more effect.  On the walls of every school hung March of Dimes posters of children wearing metal braces on their legs, or lying in a scary-looking contraption called an iron lung.  When I added that my father had stayed in one of those iron lungs for several months, eyes widened like they do when kids don’t know what to say next.

“You poor child,” women would cluck to me at church.  I glowed in the attention, the sympathy my very presence coaxed out.  To my mother they would say things like, “Bless you.  I don’t know how you do it.”  Meanwhile, their husbands took a sudden interest in their fingernails, or studied their clothes for stray whiskers.

Sometimes the pastor would read a verse about caring for widows and the fatherless and I would sit up straight.  Being part of a group mentioned in the Bible gave me moral stature.  At school, too, I felt a kind of pride.  Growing up without a father made me different, and I liked that.  Sometimes bullies would take it easy on me when they learned I had no father.  Sometimes they got even meaner—I had no protector to march to their houses and lay down warnings.

I have no memories of my father.  For me, he existed mainly in two grainy, black-and-white photos.  One shows a thin, rakish sailor leaning against a rail fence, his Navy cap at a jaunty angle.  A more formal portrait has him with wire-rim glasses and looking a bit older; he’s wearing a double-breasted suit with wide lapels and a wide tie, his curly hair parted on the side and piled in a heap on top.

My brother, who was three when our father died, has an actual memory, one that haunts him still.  Our father, lying in a bed, now paralyzed and fighting for air, turns his head to the side and gets out the words, one or two at a time, between labored breaths, “Son…you’re the…man…of the…house…now.  It’s up…to you…to take…care…of your mother…and little…brother.”  This happened three months after my brother’s third birthday.  He nodded his head and accepted the weight of that responsibility as solemnly as a three-year-old could.  Then, on the way home, he told Mother that he should probably take charge of my spankings right away.

Back then parents didn’t divorce much, and so all my friends had two at home.  I won’t deny there were times when being fatherless felt like a burden.  We were dirt poor, which came as part of the package.  We had no father to teach us how to catch and throw a ball, or how to shave, or how to talk to girls—to teach us what a man is.  We had no one to appeal to when Mother wouldn’t let us do things every other kid did with no opposition from their parents.

Having no father created a hole in my universe, something like a black hole, a powerful unseen force that disturbs everything around it.  Though he was hardly a real person to me, more of a myth, his life shadowed mine.  His absence felt like a presence.  “He looks just like his daddy,” the women would say as they tamped down a cowlick on my head, “He’s got that same head full of curls.”  They referred to him as “your daddy,” but I never called him anything.  He died before I could talk.

Apart from the rare male teacher in school, church was the main place where I had contact with men in my childhood.  Colonel Doran stood ramrod straight and sometimes wore his impressive blue uniform to church.  Another veteran, a former sailor, had a tattoo of an anchor and a woman on his arm, possibly the first tattoo I’d seen and definitely the first one in church.

I had several favorites among those men.  Mr. Crain always took me for a ride when he got a new car.  He owned a hand-crank ice cream machine, and sometimes he made ice cream with fresh peaches.  I had never tasted anything so delicious—like touching heaven with my tongue.

Another, Mr. Warton, had an eye that wandered in a different direction from the other one, and I never knew which eye to stare at.  He became the all-time hero of us kids because for special events he brought his very own cotton-candy machine to church.  It looked like a stainless-steel washtub with a tube in the middle.  He poured sugar in the tube, flipped a switch, and Presto!  All we had to do was hold a paper cone and lovely, sticky strands of pink cotton candy appeared like magic, winding their way around the paper and our fingers.

Another favorite, blind Mr. Baker, relied on a German Shepherd to lead him around.  We were strictly warned not to pet the seeing-eye dog unless Mr. Baker gave us permission, so I made it a goal to win him over.  It proved easy, for Mr. Baker had a soft spot for kids.  I tried to sit in the row behind him in order to watch how the dog handled boredom in church.  He must be bored all the time, I decided, because he always has to obey his master.  He can’t even be petted without permission.

In the years since I was a child, the percentage of single-parent homes in the U.S. has tripled.  Now, nearly a quarter of all children grow up in a home with no father present.  Looking back, it occurs to me that church offers a community that can help fill the holes in our world: not only for fatherless children, but also for single and divorced adults, widows and widowers, refugees, and foreign or out-of-state students.  Certainly, it did that for me.

Later, as a young journalist I had the good fortune of reporting to male supervisors who saw their role as developing people, not simply producing a magazine or turning a profit.  Men like Harold Myra and Jay Kesler spent hours offering guidance and shepherding me through personal crises, functioning much like substitute fathers.  And then while writing a book (Where Is God When It Hurts), I came across Dr. Paul Brand, who had learned much about pain while working with leprosy, a disease that causes insensitivity.  He was the first surgeon to use reconstructive surgery to correct deformities resulting from the disease in the hands and feet.  When I met him, he was living in Louisiana, applying the same principles to diseases such as diabetes.

As we worked together, Dr. Brand became a true father figure to me.  Over a fifteen-year period of time, I wrote three books with Dr. Brand. I accompanied him on trips to India and England, where together we retraced the main events in his life.  I spent hundreds of hours asking him every question I could think of about his experiences with medicine, life, and God.  Dr. Brand, who died in 2003, was both a good and a great man, and I have everlasting gratitude for the time we spent together.  At a stage in my spiritual development when I had little confidence to write about my own faith, I had absolute confidence writing about his.

I changed because of my relationship with Dr. Brand; he became a channel of spiritual growth for me.  My faith grew as I had a living model of a person enhanced in every way by his own relationship with God.  I now view justice, lifestyle, and money issues largely through his eyes; I see the natural environment differently; I look at the human body, and especially pain, in a very different light.

My relationship with Dr. Brand affected me deeply, in my core, on the inside.  Yet as I reflect, I can think of no instance in which he imposed himself on me, or manipulatively sought to alter my opinions.  I changed willingly, gladly, as my world and my self encountered his.  Indeed, our relationship avoided many of the father-son dynamics that I hear about from my friends.  I never competed with siblings for Dr. Brand’s attention; I never angered him by my clothes or hairstyle or the choices I made; he never held an inheritance over me as a power move.  Our relationship was simpler, more pure: that of an eager learner and a wise and caring teacher who had my best interests at heart.  His example filled the word father with meaning for me, a word I tentatively learned to apply to God.

Reviewing my own life calls to mind the role any of us can play for someone who lacks a complete or healthy family.  As Father’s Day rolls around each year, I’m reminded that I never bought a card or racked my brain for a creative gift.  Yet rarely did I feel like a fatherless child.

Philip Yancey is among the most renowned Christian writers of our time.  In an era of single-parent families, he offers us an inside view.  This is reprinted with permission from his website, philipyancey.com.

[1] “Look to the Bornobo!” How Belief Affects Behavior

by Mark Eckel, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Crossroads Bible College

He was glad to see me again.  The cabbie had picked me up at the airport last month whereupon we engaged in a forty-minute discussion concerning world housing and other scintillating topics.  Perhaps he enjoyed the repartee.  I had questioned his assumptions on three arguments.  “Look to the Bonobo,” he began.  “The what?” I asked.  “The bonobo is a primate that has altruistic tendencies.  This loveable mammal has not a bad bone in his body.  He always does what is best for the group.  Humans have much more in common with the bonobo.”  We were off.  “Correct me if I’m wrong,” I began, “but you seem to be making two huge assumptions.  First, you presuppose that we’re animals and second you think we’re good at heart.”  “Exactly!” came his excited reply.  “Yes!  Humans can be better than we are now.  Look to the bonobo,” came his repetitious refrain.

The conversation was a give and take between two faith systems.  I questioned the cabbie’s basis for his arguments because everyone begins somewhere.  Everyone’s belief affects their behavior.  The hope that we have core goodness passed on by our primate ancestors ignores that lions kill wildebeests and people murder people.  One result of thinking we are perfectible may be if students don’t learn the fault rests with the teacher.  Another fallout of such accepted wisdom could be that a governmental welfare system is more important than personal responsibility.  Still others might argue that capitulating to terrorist demands by admitting national policy failures would stop terrorist attacks.

An alternative view suggests we humans are inherently corrupt.  We are shot through with tendencies that rebel against God and His law.  Can teachers inhibit student learning?  Sure.  Yet students also bear responsibility for their own efforts to learn.  Indeed, the reason why pupils must take exams is because they are sinners: we don’t want to work if we don’t have to.  Difficulties of the unforeseen may necessitate a state welfare system as a “safety net” for those unable to stop calamity.  A natural tendency toward laziness since The Fall, however, suggests some are listed on welfare roles because they don’t want to work—period.  Do some national strategies upset people to the place that they take up arms against the so-called “oppressor?”  Without question.  But power has a draw all its own and humans will not give up their grasp for control seeded in us since Genesis three.  If killing civilians in an attempt to defeat a nation’s terrorism policy is a means to an end, terrorists will not be stopped by the panacea of peaceful coexistence.

Ideas change people.  Advertising agencies, political spin, religious hucksters, and con artists all live to sell an idea.  Three essential concepts fuel all human attempts to get our points across: (1) “I believe something,” (2) “My beliefs affect my daily life,” and (3) “My beliefs affect other people.”  Our thinking will sway our point of view on any given subject.  Not only that, but my ideas affect decisions made through all matters, significant and insignificant.  And whether we admit it or not, choices I make do change others.  Whether we believe in the possibility of human perfection or in a warped, bent, twisted nature our preconceived ideas color what we think, say, and how we live.

I love comic book heroes.  Why?  I believe the tenet ingrained in each superhero: we have a titanic flaw and exceptional human abilities.  My interest in Batman or Spiderman resonates with my deepest hope that I can battle evil, overcoming my own imperfection. Yet I am constantly perplexed in the battle.  In his book Who Needs A Superhero H. Michael Brewer suggests that each comic book character reflects the belief that our struggles in life need help from an outside source.  In the movie Hellboy, for instance, the lead character faces an identity crisis and a decision for or against evil.  I suspect that many people respond to the comics because in them, they see themselves.  We do believe something even if we cannot fully explain it to ourselves, or others.

Those beliefs then affect my everyday living.  Chris Van Allsburg in his children’s classic The Wretched Stone suggests that television may turn us into apes.  Sailors on a ship discover a magical, flat, pulsating rock on an island.  Hoisting it aboard, the ship sets sail again only to have its crew hypnotized by the infectious draw of light from the stone.  Soon, the one-time sailors have become primates, incapable of work due to the attraction that captivates their attention.  Van Allsburg’s belief is that television has a compelling as well as a corrosive affect on humans.  The author’s point of view is clearly seen as his belief warns all who read the text that daily life is affected by undisciplined viewing.

But ultimately, my beliefs affect other people in addition to myself.  Abraham Maslow conceived a way of explaining how human beings function at the most elemental levels.  His views of human “self-actualization” are promoted in his fabled “hierarchy” which graces many educational texts.  Christians, too, have “bought into” the perspective in various “ed-psych” books.  Yet, Maslow was an atheist.  There is no supernatural foundation that suggests anything other than a view of humanity tied to “here and now” rather than “then and there.”  Maslow’s humanism affects how educators view themselves, their subjects, and their students.  Focus on “self” is pervasive in classrooms around the world in part because of Maslow’s hierarchy which is tied directly to humans rather than God.  Personal belief affects me and others around me too.

Some would want to argue, “But that’s your perspective!”  I would have to agree.  But I would want to know if anyone could refute the basic argument—our beliefs affect how we respond to the world around us.  In the movie Secondhand Lions Robert Duvall tells Joel Osmet’s character, “It don’t matter if it’s true or not.  Sometimes you just gotta’ believe in some things like courage and honor ‘cause that’s what it’s all about.”  Really?  If truth is up to the individual, then there is no secure foundation for being courageous or honorable.  A pop-rock band Hoobastank sings, “So why does there only have to be one correct philosophy…I’d like to think I can go my own way and meet you in the end.”  Wishful thinking is nice but forms a porous position, especially if philosophies contradict each other.  The problem that confronts Secondhand Lions, Hoobastank, or my cabbie is certain beliefs lead to certain ends.  Acting on my principles produces certain results.  Like it or not, my behavior is premised on my point of view.  Books, movies, songs, how a class is conducted is dependent upon an outlook of life.

And I suspect, were researchers honest, we might even see fights between the bonobos*

*Since I wrote this article in 2004, bonobo researchers have admitted there is violence in the primate culture.  See http://lolayabonobo.wildlifedirect.org/2008/07/27/bonobo-violence/

Dr. Eckel’s website –Warpandwoof.org–will provide readers with stimulating faith and learning insights.


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